There is a lot of activity geared towards next generation equipment. Media blocks are moving into projectors, simplifying the requirements for the server. Projectors having a lower cost of ownership are on the horizon. What else can we expect? It’s useful to review what has been accomplished, where the gaps exist, and how those gaps are likely to be filled.
The standards process for digital cinema was initiated in January of 2000. The primary incentive for standards was to prevent the disaster that occurred in cinema in the 90’s with the introduction of digital sound for film. Digital sound for film suffered from the lack of standards, leading to several incompatible formats in the field. This multiplied the number of licenses paid by distributors, added to the number of versions of a movie maintained in inventory, and complicated distribution as the footprint for each type of system was all over the map. Exhibitors were frustrated with the incompatibility of systems, the expense of attempting to support all of them, and the confusion that multiple systems caused when trying to get a print that played correctly. These problems were well understood by all stakeholders, and digital cinema standards neatly solved them by introducing uniform and license-free technologies for packaging, compression, and encryption.
But digital cinema is a complex technology, and introduces a new set of interoperability problems through supervisory, content, and security management systems that are not mirrored in the film world. This leads to POS systems that do not work with all TMS systems, TMS systems that do not work with all digital cinema servers, security key management systems that are not accessible by all security key providers, the inability of most security key management systems to manage the transfer and validation of keys down to the digital cinema server, and so on.
While the exhibitor is said to have choice in the way of digital cinema server and projector, these choices become limited as higher level components of the system are selected. The limitation of choice hinders competition, and competition is needed to achieve lowest cost. The successful introduction of new technologies to digital cinema, therefore, will be those that lessen capital expenditures for new purchases, those that improve the cost of operation and maintenance, and those that improve performance across the supply chain and the enterprise.
Starting at the projector, two developments along this path are evident today: the movement towards in-projector media blocks, and the movement towards laser light sources. Media blocks require significant development. When we talk about FIPS-compliant and DCI-compliant servers, we’re talking about media blocks. There are seven companies that have successfully marketed servers in the US, five of which have a market share of 1% or greater:
|US Market Share
Each of the named server companies supplies its own media block. But the economy of this is already showing strain. None of the media blocks have passed DCI compliance testing, and not everyone gets the features right. Sony, for example, needs a media block that can drive two projectors for installations requiring high brightness, a small volume application. The Sony media block cannot drive two projectors. Rather than devote R&D towards a new product, Sony chose to use a Doremi media block that is capable of the task. Such cross-platform application of hardware will only increase, as media block feature sets grow, and the appetite for such development diminishes.
If one is seeking a common media block interface, it is more likely to emerge through commercial prowess than it is in standards committees. Notably, Dolby, whose well-advertised DCOSI common media block interface effort is designed to supply it with multiple makers of media blocks, is not likely to have an impact on the marketplace. Dolby is now number four in server sales in the US, and simply does not have the clout to introduce a defacto standard.
Laser light sources are widely discussed, and this journal has dealt with the subject on several occasions. Barco, Kodak, and Laser Light Engines are each making significant progress in the development of this new technology. Sony has yet to go public with its progress in laser projection, but Sony has the most to gain from it, as its LCOS technology cannot light large screens without it. At least two of these companies agree that laser light sources are 3-5 years away, which establishes a reasonable incubation period.
Laser light promises to bring operational cost savings in terms of bulb costs and energy costs. But any savings in operational costs have to be weighed against the increase in capital expenditure. While Kodak claims that its licensed laser projector technology can be built for about the cost of a xenon digital projector, the claim remains to be validated by a projector manufacturer. Barco, as reported earlier, did anything but validate Kodak’s claim. So while laser projectors should emerge in 3-5 years, their initial cost could make them attractive only for the largest of screens.
Digital projectors allow the digital workflow to be managed and monitored remotely, which is likely to eventually lead to “robotic” cinemas, most efficiently operated by large cinema chains from a central office. The degree to which workflow process can be automated or remotely controlled depends on the degree of software integration possible across the enterprise. This journal calls the holy grail of such software integration “cinema-in-a-box.” Cinema-in-a-box integrates outboard digital cinema server, TMS, POS, and back office functions in one product family from a single software supplier. The industry has a way to go before such evolution hits the marketplace.
Security Key Management
In the near-term, the supply chain can reduce costs by moving towards open security key management. The barrier to making this happen has several components. First is the lack of understanding of security key processes by execs. The most famous goof of this nature was the requirement of a modem in the DCI specification for transfer of security keys. The false belief that a modem was needed to secure the keys was so deeply ingrained that it took 5 years before the requirement for modems ceased to appear in deployment agreements.
A stickier barrier is that the source of the problem is not easily identified. Fulfillment companies such as Technicolor and Deluxe have built significant help desk support to hide the problems incurred by the lack of standards for security key management. These support services are marketed as a feature, not as a liability. Proper security key management would greatly reduce the need for such help desk services, but that requires infrastructure in the field. Infrastructure is expensive, and if the infrastructure is shared, then it also benefits one’s competitor. So these companies are not incentivized to fix the problem. Fixing the problem requires someone else to get involved. Notably, Fox appears to have grasped the problem, but can only take partial steps to manage it, as studios will not spend to build out infrastructure. The problem will languish until a savvy company recognizes the opportunity to champion, develop, and market an open solution.
The industry has significant improvements in technology to look forward to…but not overnight. If the promise of next-gen technology is preventing one from making the decision to buy, then it’s advisable to take a second look.